Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst stated the obvious when he described the death of Ali Abdullah Saleh as “a major turning point in Yemen’s history.”
“Saleh was a man for all seasons, someone who was able for four decades to change his political colours and alliances according to circumstances, up and until his death just a few hours ago,” he said.
The killing of such an important figure who even after being deposed in 2011 continued to influence and lead a major portion of the armed forces in his country cannot but have a major impact on the further development of the crisis in this impoverished nation. Yemen is now facing an exacerbation of a multi-party civil war, overlaid by brutal U.S.-backed Saudi aggression and a resulting humanitarian crisis.
Ending his life in a checkpoint clash with Houthi forces (who had been his enemy, then an ally and now enemy again) it is not easy to simply sum up the role that Ali Abdullah Saleh played in Yemen.
Rather than focus on his character (often described as “wily”), as Marxists we must look at his class position in Yemeni society to best understand the impact that Saleh had on his nation.
Republican Revolution of 1962
Before 1962, North Yemen was known as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen andwas ruled by a hereditary Imam. With the exception of a thin layer of people associated with the Imam’s family, Yemenis in the North lived in abject poverty. Most people, especially women, were illiterate. Life expectancy was low. People did not have access to electricity.
In 1962, a group of young military officers, including a youthful Saleh, led a coup that overthrew the Imam. This led to a civil war between the Republicans (those who wanted a republican form of government instead of a monarchy) and the Royalists.
In the context of the Cold War and the the Pan-Arab movement of the time, this war quickly involved other forces: The Saudis with the backing of the British and and the U.S. intervened on behalf of the Imam’s forces, while Egypt and Syria (known then at the United Arab Republic), with support from the USSR, supported the Republican forces.
After the Six Day War in 1967 , Egypt withdrew its forces and the war ground on to a negotiated settlement.
From a class perspective, the 1962 Revolution in the North represented the forces of modernity, of aspiring bourgeois democracy, attempting to smash and take over from the forces of feudalism, as represented by the Imam and the rural tribal leaderships. However, the civil
war ended up without the feudal elements in the countryside being decisively smashed. Instead, the Saudis started a system of financial support for the rural tribal leaders.
Feudalism in rural Yemen
When we say “tribal” it may conjure up all sorts of images. In the case of Yemen, this is a system of feudalism in the rural areas, where the leaders own and/or control the land and live in relative ease and wealth and the other tribal members live in poverty. Rank and file tribesmen live under the “protection” of the leaders and also often function as informal armed forces, deployed in conflicts with other tribes or with the central government.
Thus this feudal system continued on after the Revolution of 1962–true land reform never occurred. The new central government in the North was able to bring some improvements to the people, especially with the support of the of the socialist bloc: public health campaigns such as vaccinations; more access to education and a significant increase in literacy rates; the electrification of many areas; increase in paved roads. But it’s important to understand that the rural areas continued to be more under the control of the tribal leadership than of the central government, and that the vast majority of those living in these areas continued to experience significant poverty.
Over time, vast numbers of young men in the North living in rural villages have migrated to the capitol city of Sana’a, where they work in small shops or in other businesses, but retain their village identities and loyalties, sending remittances and going home to see their families in the village on a regular basis, usually during Ramadan.
Saleh’s leadership role was recognized as being one in which he was able to manage this system and keep the tribal forces forces from overcoming the central government. He did this through a combination of carrots and sticks and divide and conquer. Of course he also had to deal with other forces: urban elements including workers and intellectuals that wanted more modernization and democracy as well as the emerging national bourgeoisie. Simultaneously, some international capitalist forces had some interest in Yemen, primarily relating to possible oil wealth that so far has not been fully exploited and these forces too had to be managed by Saleh and his leadership party the General Congress Party.
Saleh’s leadership of North Yemen continued until unification with the South in 1990. It is important to remember that the South of Yemen followed a different path. Essentially colonized by the British, the South, which is much less populous than the North, had as its main economic industry the Port of Aden, which is a natural deepwater port, strategically important for international trade. As an international port city colonized by a major world power, a working class in the city of Aden developed and was influenced by international ideological and cultural currents. A Marxist-Leninist resistance to colonization emerged and the British left the South in 1967.
From the founding of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen to unification, South Yemen had a lot of instability in its leadership. In many ways similar to the North, the ostensible leadership of the government lacked influence in rural areas outside the city. With the collapse of the socialist bloc, unification with the North might have seemed like the only available next step.
Yemen in a unipolar world
As long as a socialist bloc existed, Saleh was content to receive aid and trade from it, as well as some minimal aid from imperialist countries such as Peace Corps volunteers from the U.S. When the socialist bloc ceased to exist, Yemen, now one country, had to adjust to the reality of a unipolar world.
That reality came into sharp focus in 1991 when Yemen, as a temporary member of the UN Security Council, was the only nation to vote “no” on the genocidal war against Iraq that became known as Desert Storm. The story goes that the U.S. ambassador said “That will be the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever made,” and all U.S. aid was withdrawn, down to the handful of Peace Corps volunteers who were staffing clinics and small development projects. In addition, Saudi Arabia punished Yemen by sending home all the Yemeni “guest workers” in the kingdom, creating significant economic hardship for families dependent on remittances from their loved ones working across the border.
From 1991 and unification to the Arab Spring in 2011, Saleh’s tenure was marked by increasing austerity, dictated by international capitalist organizations like the IMF, and neo-liberal development, including projects that attempted to build on the potential tourist attractions of the country. One such project in 2001 to build a luxury hotel near the historic “Bab al Yemen” (Gate of Yemen) in the Old City of Sana’a resulted in the destruction of a shantytown lived in by super-oppressed Yemenis, and led to multiple days of rebellion on the part of the shantytown residents.
Likewise, a national anti-austerity uprising was quelled in 1998; it was commonplace to see armored vehicles full of soldiers zipping about the capitol and patrolling major intersections.
Of note, the 1994 Civil War in Yemen marked the final determination that the country was to be unified under the domination of capitalism, both domestic and foreign.
In the wake not only of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. but also of the 2000 USS Cole bombing in the Port of Aden, Saleh encouraged greater cooperation between the U.S. and Yemeni militaries. U.S. aid to Yemen was eventually resumed.
The impact of neoliberal development and austerity, overseen by Pres. Saleh, could be visibly seen in the streets of Sana’a. Yemenis and resident foreigners alike have noted that despite its poverty, in the 1970s and 1980s one rarely saw beggars in the streets of Sana’a. That is because the family and tribal structures took care of people who had fallen on hard times. As inequality increased with greater capitalist development however, this traditional form of social welfare became strained and in 1998 one could see people begging, with much greater numbers visible just a few years later in 2001. This situation no doubt continued to deteriorate until 2011 with the emergence of the “Arab Spring.”
In 2011, Saleh’s government had already been engaged in conflict with the Houthis, a religious/political movement based in the Northernmost part of Yemen. The Houthis are Zaidi Shia, a form of Shi’ism only found in Yemen; notably, the old Imamate was Zaidi.
The Houthis were accused of wanting to bring back the Imam; they countered that they wanted more autonomy and better opportunities for their region. Later, the idea that the Houthis are proxies for Iran has become current, apparently because they are both Shia (though of different varieties.) Saleh prosecuted the war against the Houthis, with help from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, a new separatist, pro-socialist movement began to emerge in the South. It was against this context, of neoliberal austerity and civil war, as well as the “War on Terror” in cooperation with the U.S. that people began to gather at “Kentucky Square,” the site of the protest encampment near the university in Sana’a. The main demand was for Saleh to step down and for more democracy.
Saleh did step down in November 2011 after an assassination attempt left him seriously injured. Saleh left the country for medical treatment. The power was handed over to his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi , formerly a military officer from the PDRY, who then won an uncontested election in 2012. The plan was for a new constitution to be drafted with new presidential and parliamentary elections to follow. However, this process was not progressing very well and was unpopular with many constituencies. In the context of a multi-party civil war including terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula, the Houthis, the Southern Separatists and the now significantly weakened central government, in 2014 the Houthis drove south into Sana’a and seized power, continuing their drive south towards Aden.
It was this seizure of power that the Saudis used to justify launching their brutal bombing campaign, alleging they were intervening to re-instate the “legitimate” government of Hadi.
Saleh’s surprising alliance with Houthis
It was at this point that Saleh made the possibly most surprising move in his political career, which was to ally with his erstwhile enemies, the Houthis, to fight the Saudis.
Since the Saudi intervention, things in Yemen have gone from bad to worse, to much, much worse. More than 5,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting. At least 17 million people are in hunger with more than a third considered close to famine. Nearly a million are experiencing a cholera epidemic. Meanwhile, U.S. intervention in Yemen, under the guise of the “war on terror” also continues to escalate.
Saleh’s unpardonable sin, in the eyes of the Houthis, was to offer to open negotiations with the Saudis to lift the recently tightened blockade on Yemen; they called this treason and clearly it was the final straw to a deteriorating alliance.
There is a civil war, an imperialist war and a humanitarian crisis going on in Yemen. The killing of such a massive figure as Saleh–for all his contradictions–heightens the danger of expanded interventions, especially under the rubric of “humanitarianism.” Now more than ever, anti-imperialists must make clear that we defend the right of self-determination of the Yemeni people and staunchly oppose all foreign intervention.